We’re all in the process of dying—such is the nature of living. But while most people seem to have calmly accepted this stunning horror of mortality, I’ve had a bit more difficulty. Jews like me spend this high-holiday season pleading God to protect them another year, wondering in prayer (Leonard Cohen–like): Who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast? Who indeed? Most likely nobody I know but, my hummingbird brain urges during work, or while studying, or when I need it focused on anything else, What if, what if, what if?
And so, just in case, I prepare their eulogies.
Neatly summarizing my relationship to the not-yet-deceased, compiling the anecdotes that reveal their unique virtues, and standing in the imaginary center of attention: It’s a bizarre-yet-effective anxiety-buster I developed in late adolescence. I am obviously powerless in defending my loved ones from disease, sparing my acquaintances from disaster. But in preparing the words that encapsulate their lives, and somewhat theatrically touting my connection to them, I feel briefly in control. Logically I know, of course, that such power is a fantasy, just as the necrologists of ancient Egypt surely suspected, from time to time, that the artifice of their mummifying efforts was ultimately for naught. But our personal ruminations rarely follow logic.
I’ve prepared eulogies for my grandma and my high school English teacher, my sister and my college ex-boyfriend. I’ve prepared them for an erstwhile boss at my hometown deli, for my twin brother, my dental hygienist. If you and I were to hang out long enough, I’d probably make one for you, too. Is it the best tool for coping with the senseless dread of my companions dying? According to my current boyfriend (whose eulogy would absolutely make him cry if ever I allowed him to hear it), definitely not. I admit that my way to mollify thanatophobia is peculiar, this blend of self-important sentimentality and unnecessary morbidity. But by the time I’ve finished a eulogy—when I’ve assembled the story of our relationship, put my finger on what makes you unique, and shaped it all into a work of prose that will wreak an enervating catharsis on my imaginary funeral audience—well, at least I feel better.
Most of these eulogies are staged when something far more urgent should be consuming my attention—when I’m on deadline for a story and the Word doc is still blank, when it’s April 14 and my taxes still need filing. In those white-noised moments of necessary tedium, I flee my responsibilities and focus my energy on eulogies instead. I prepare words for my friend Alyssa, for whose wedding I’ll soon be making a very different speech, and I connect all those things that make her so important: her terrible driving, her easy smile, and the hungover college Saturdays we spent sweating out cheap vodka on neighboring ellipticals. Or I figure out what to say about my twin brother, with whom I disagree on everything political, and yet whose mood I can still sense across state lines, and whose taste in movies I cherish above all others’.
For these people who inhabit the center of my heart, I feel relief taking stock of their goodness, understanding how their existence shapes my own. And even for those in my life who exist in distant orbit—exes and acquaintances and those who simply faded from the foreground—there’s comfort in filing away the parts of them that once mattered to me most, instead of dwelling on the reasons for their absence. I feel calm knowing that if they were to suddenly vanish from this Earth, I’d know where I had stood with them.
Beyond the therapeutic process of preparing a fake eulogy, there’s also comfort in imagining its recitation. When I was 7, my remarkably old family cat died, and I felt that my parents and siblings did not sufficiently mourn the loss—apparently it’s not common to sit shiva for a cat? In my imaginary funerals, however, every seat is filled, every attendant wracked with grief. Perhaps others worry, as I worry, that their lives somehow won’t have mattered; a large funeral with many sad attendants proves otherwise. And while the act of giving an imaginary eulogy is obviously histrionic, it still possesses a degree of charity; it gives relief to those imaginary attendants. And for me, the imaginary speaker, it offers absolute attention, which, I admit, I totally live for. By listening, the fantasy funeral attendants confirm that the subject of my eulogy mattered—that I do as well.
In all my years slipping into this rabbit hole, though, there is one person I’ve still not eulogized: me. It’s not that I’m so comfortable with my own death—timor mortis and I are old friends—but, rather, that the consequence of death is relinquishing the story of your life. I can’t predict what will be said about me when the time comes (probably prematurely by some stupid accident involving a hot air balloon), but I hope that the words ring true. If my future eulogizer is honest, he’ll probably admit, God, was this one neurotic! And, yet, I hope, through laughter or tears, my mourners will agree: Yes, of course. But she mattered.